Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century/Attila
Attila, king and general of the Huns. For the facts of his life and his personal and moral characteristics see D. of G. and R. Biogr. It comes within our scope only to note his influence upon Christendom; though, throughout, it is difficult to separate legend from history. The rapid series of events between the Hunnish attack on the Eastern empire in 441 and the battle of Châlons in 451 has been compared to a deluge of rain which sweeps a district and leaves no further trace than the débris which the torrent has washed down. But in Eastern Europe, though Attila's kingdom was dismembered at his death, the great body of the Huns, who had followed him from the wilds of Central Asia, settled permanently in the wide plains of the Lower Danube; while, viewed as a special instrument of Providence, "a Messiah of grief and ruin," whose mission it was to chastise the sins of Christians, the "scourge (or rather flail) of God" had an abiding influence over Western Christendom, and the virtues and merits of the saints who thwarted him by bold resistance or prudent submission shone forth the brighter, the darker became the picture of the oppressor.
Portents in sky and earth announced to the inhabitants of Gaul that the year 450 was the opening of a terrible epoch (Idat. Chron. ann. 450). Servatius, bp. of Tongres, visiting Rome to consult St. Peter and St. Paul, was informed that Gaul would be entirely devastated by the Huns, but that he himself would die in peace before the devastation came (Paul. Diac. ap. Bouquet, Rec. i. p. 649). Attila, strengthened by an alliance with Genseric, king of the Vandals (Jorn. Reb. Get. 36), had two pretexts for his attack—his claim to the hand of Honoria, and the vindication of the rights of an elder son of a Frank prince against his brother, whom Aetius had given possession of their paternal territory (Prisc. Exc. Leg. p. 40). Theodoric, king of the Goths, whose alliance was sought by both Attila and Valentinian, inclined to the side of order, and the Hun, who now took the rôle of chastising his rebellious subjects, the Visigoths, marched with five, or perhaps seven, hundred thousand warriors, including many Franks, Burgundians, and Thuringians (Sid. Apoll. Paneg. Avit. v. 324), to the banks of the Rhine, which he crossed near Coblenz. He installed himself at Trèves, the Roman metropolis of Gaul, which was pillaged. After one fruitless attempt, he entered Metz on Easter Eve, April 8, slaughtered indiscriminately priests and people, except the bishop, and reduced the city to ashes, all the churches perishing except the oratory of St. Stephen (Paul. Diac. ap. Bouquet, Rec. i. p. 650). Rheims, deserted by its inhabitants, was easily reduced, and a Hun struck off the head of its bishop, Nicacius, while he was precenting the words "Quicken me according to Thy word" (Ps. cxix. 25) (Frodoard. Martyr. Remens. p. 113). Tongres, Arras, Laon, and Saint-Quentin also fell. The inhabitants of Paris had resolved on flight, but the city was saved by the resolution and devotion of St. Geneviève (Genovefa), the maiden of Nanterre who was warned in a vision that Paris would be spared (Act. SS. Boll. Jan. i. 143‒147). Attila did not wish to wage war against Christianity, though doubtless some of his followers were stimulated by polemical rancour; he fought against Rome, not its church. Nor did he intend to give up Gaul to indiscriminate pillage; he hoped to crush the Visigoths first, and then to cope separately with Aetius and the Roman forces. About April 10 he left Metz for Orleans. Anianus (St. Agnan), bp. of Orleans, hastened to Arles to apprise Aetius of their danger, but Orleans was only relieved by the influence of the senator Avitus of Clermont, who secured the help of Theodoric, when the gates had actually been opened to the Huns and pillage was beginning (Vita S. Aniani, in Bouquet, Rec. i. 645). Attila retreated precipitately towards Châlons-sur-Marne, in the Campi Catalaunici. Near Troyes he was met by its bishop, Lupus (St. Loup), at whose intercession Attila spared the defenceless inhabitants of Champagne, carrying Lupus with him as a hostage to the banks of the Rhine. For the subsequent military movements and the battle of Châlons, see Thierry, Hist. d’Attila, pp. 172‒188, 428‒437, and art. "Attila" in the Nouv. Biog. Gén. In the spring of 452 Attila penetrated into Italy by the passes of the Julian Alps (Prosp. Aquit. Chron.), Aetius having sent Valentinian for safety to Rome. Attila received his first check at the walls of Aquileia; but after three months' resistance he observed some storks preparing to leave their nests with their young (Jorn. Reb. Get. 42), and, taking this as a favourable omen, redoubled the vigour of his siege, and a century afterwards Jornandes (ib.) could scarcely trace the ruins of Aquileia. Milan and Pavia were sacked, and probably also Verona, Mantua, Brescia, Bergamo, and Cremona. An embassy, sent by the people and senate of Rome, to endeavour to obtain Attila's peaceful evacuation of Italy, met the invaders on the Mincio, near Mantua and Vergil's farm. At its head were two illustrious senators and the eloquent Leo the Great, who had been bp. of Rome since 440. His appearance in pontifical robes awoke in Attila some feeling akin to awe, and he retired as before a power superior to his own. Soon after he died from the bursting of a blood-vessel, though not without suspicion of foul play. Cf. Leo I.
Undoubtedly the great and distinguishing feature of the war in the eyes of 5th-cent. Christians would be the threefold repulse of Attila, "the scourge of God"; from Orleans by St. Agnan, from Troyes by St. Loup, and, above all, from Rome by St. Leo; so signal a triumph was it of the church's spiritual weapons over the hosts who were held to symbolize the powers of darkness and of Antichrist. It was the final and conclusive answer to the few heathen who still referred all the misfortunes of the empire to the desertion of the ancient polytheism. For a discussion of the various national legends that have clustered around Attila, "the hammer of the world," see D. C. B. (4-vol. ed.), s.v. The leading authorities for his life are in Gibbon's Roman Empire (ed. Smith), iv. 191 (notes). See also his Life by Am. Thierry, 1855.